A long time ago I had a friend named Fred. We were students at the same time at the University of Rhode Island. Fred was married to Carol. He loved her, sailing and whales. In the course of his field work on humpbacks he spent a good deal of time in the air, spotting whales and recording their behavior. On a fall day he and his colleagues were flying off the mid-Atlantic when something went wrong with the plane. There were no survivors.

I remember Fred not vividly but discretely. He drove me to the train station in Kingston one day. He and Carol took part in my 25th birthday bash. He had a telescope trained on the large salt pond where they lived to watch migrating birds. But I would be hard pressed to tell you the color of his eyes or the tenor of his voice.

That is how I remember others who have died: specifically but not fully. After all, who can remember an entire person? I recall a retired doctor of advanced years who offered unfailing hospitality with his 5 o’clock invitation — “Have a seat! So, what have you been up to?” A widowed neighbor who staged the one and only block party on my street. A mother with large glasses and an ever-expanding dining room table packed with drifters, exchange students and me. I can recall a local singer, a conservation leader, a writer: give me a name and I will give you a personal and particular memory.

That, perhaps, is what it means to be dead. As the years pass, it’s hard for even those closest to recall the entirety of a person. We are a species geared to the specific, not the abstract. Each of us will become a collection of distinct memories in the minds of those we have befriended, argued with, laughed with, shared a meal with. It’s like being a mountain. No one can see every facet of a mountain at one time. Facet by facet, however, we reveal ourselves to others slowly, over time. To our intimates we might show all our sides. When we are dead, a facet of the self may glimmer within someone else for years. If we are lucky, that memory may be conveyed to another through story. 

One fall afternoon some years ago a companion and I set sail in a recalcitrant but serviceable boat for a quick sail. It was the night of the full moon and, due to one thing or another, we were unable to return to the mooring from which we set forth. Instead we came in to a wharf in Owls Head harbor long after dark. To walk home in ill-fitting rubber boots on a rapidly cooling fall night would have been a bad idea, not to mention a long hike. Instead I clumped up the hill to the house of an elderly but quite sprightly lobsterman I knew. I hoped my unexpected knock on the door would not cause a heart attack. Instead he greeted me as if I were a welcome guest. I explained the situation and asked if he could drive my companion and me back home. In less time than it takes to tell the story, he reached for his jacket and picked up the keys to the truck. We clambered into the vehicle and, almost on cue, the three of us began to laugh. I was home in 10 minutes. The lobsterman teased me about this misadventure for some time after.

By telling this tale, I give you one facet of a man now dead who lives on in me and now, although at a distance, in you. Fred, who flew out to sea on that fine day in October, remains particular to me despite the number of years that have passed. I may not recall the color of his eyes but I can tell you that he owned a cat named Ethel.